Will: Putin's post-factual politics
"In the walls of the cubicle there were three
orifices. ... Similar slits existed in thousands or
tens of thousands throughout the building. ... For
some reason they were nicknamed memory holes."
— George Orwell, "1984"
WASHINGTON – Documents inconvenient to the regime went into the Ministry of Truth's slits and down to "enormous furnaces." Modern tyrannies depend on state control of national memories — retroactive truths established by government fiat. Which is why Russia's Supreme Court recently upheld the conviction of a blogger for violating Article 354.1 of Russia's criminal code.
This May 2014 provision criminalizes the "Rehabilitation of Nazism." The blogger's crime was to write: "The communists and Germany jointly invaded Poland, sparking off the Second World War." The secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact have gone down one of Vladimir Putin's memory holes.
The pact was signed Aug. 23, 1939. On Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland. Sixteen days later, the Soviet Union invaded from the east. Poland was carved up in accordance with the secret protocols, and about six months later Soviet occupiers were conducting the Katyn Forest Massacre of 25,700 Polish military officers, officials, priests and intellectuals.
Although in 2009 Putin denounced the pact as "collusion to solve one's problems at others' expense," in 2015 he defended it as Stalin's means of buying time to prepare for the Nazi onslaught. This fable is refuted by, among other facts, this: Stalin did not prepare. When Germany's ambassador in Moscow informed Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov that their nations were now at war, a stunned Molotov asked, "What have we done to deserve this?"
The Russian Supreme Court's Orwellian ruling was that the blogger denied facts established by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. It convicted leading Nazis of waging aggressive war against, among others, Poland, but, in an act of victors' justice, made no judgment against the Soviet regime, representatives of which sat on the tribunal. This accommodation to postwar political reality was necessary to enable the tribunal to function, which was necessary for civilizing vengeance. The tribunal ignored, but did not deny, the patent fact of Soviet aggression.
The Russian court's ruling is a window into the sinister continuity of Putin's Russia and the Soviet system that incubated him. So, if the former secretary of state who aspires to the American presidency has time to read a book before Jan. 20, she should make it "The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin" by Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times. It is a study of the volatile nostalgia of a man seething with resentments acquired as a KGB operative — a "devoted officer of a dying empire" — during the Soviet Union's final years. It is a pointillist portrait painted with telling details that should cause sobriety to supplant dreams of happy policy "resets" with Russia:
As a senior security official in post-Soviet Russia, Putin kept on his desk a bronze statue of "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police and terror apparatus. At Putin's May 7, 2000, presidential inauguration, a choir sang a composition "written in 1836 to celebrate a soldier's death in the war against Poland and rewritten in Soviet times ... to remove the homage to the tsar. For Putin, the choir sang the Soviet verses." There was the 2006 assassination in Moscow, on Putin's 54th birthday, of the troublesome journalist Anna Politkovskaya. (Asked about the frequent deaths of anti-Putin journalists, Donald Trump breezily said, "I think our country does plenty of killing.") And the 2006 poisoning in London of Putin's antagonist Alexander Litvinenko using radioactive polonium-210.
Domestically, Putin's "managed democracy" is Stalinism leavened by kleptomania, as in the looting of the energy giant Yukos. In foreign policy, Putin's Russia is unambiguously and unapologetically revanchist. The Soviet Union was likened to a burglar creeping down a hotel corridor until he finds an unlocked door. Putin, who found Crimea unlocked (when he honeymooned there in 1983, it seemed "a magical, sacred place to him," writes Myers), is pushing on the door of what remains of Ukraine.
The Democratic presidential nominee fundamentally misread Putin's thugocracy, and her opponent admires the thug because "at least he's a leader." As the Russian blogger's fate demonstrates, Putin practices what Orwell wrote: "'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'"
Back in the day, some analysts prophesied a "convergence" between the Soviet Union and the United States, two industrial societies becoming more alike. In our day, there is indeed a growing similarity: In both places, post-factual politics are normal.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.